Manuel Unzueta is still in shock as he stands next to the charred remains of his Santa Barbara studio, which held his life’s work as an artist.
“Fifty years of work, my art, my paintings, my records — everything was gone in 15 minutes,” he told Noozhawk.
The Santa Barbara City Fire Department got the call at 1:18 a.m. March 1 and found structures in his backyard in flames.
Five engines battled the flames and evacuated nearby residents, and the quick response prevented any injuries and major damage to the surrounding homes.
The wooden structure in the backyard of 1114 E. De la Guerra St. was destroyed by the fire, and with it, a lifetime of work.
“Everything is gone ... it’s priceless, priceless,” Unzueta said.
Unzueta, 64, is a well-known Santa Barbara muralist, artist and lecturer in Santa Barbara City College’s Chicano Studies program.
He has volunteered with the city for 40 years to design and paint murals with young artists and to help with city beautification efforts.
The two structures in his mother’s backyard held furniture, family valuables and his artwork. One contained his guitars, paintings, drawings, awards, records, lecture notes and slides.
“You always think the house is going to burn, not the studio out back,” Unzueta said. “Everything of value was put in that 200 square feet of space.”
Even paintings from his childhood in Mexico and El Paso, Texas, are gone, in addition to paintings from the 1960s, before his time at UC Santa Barbara.
Unzueta estimates that he lost 1,000 pieces in the fire, and he said he had planned to donate a large part of his collection to UCSB next year. Many paintings were being saved to provide a financial future to his two children, Annette, 24, and Manuel, 17.
His family is unhurt, which he said is giving him the strength to move forward.
The whole family was home when their backyard went up in flames. Unzueta was dozing off when one of his sisters screamed that there was a fire. He rushed to the backyard with a hose, trying to stop the flames from destroying his work.
He started to go up the steps inside the burning building to save what paintings he could. His son yelled at him not to, so he watched it all burn. The fire spread throughout the building by the time the fire department arrived.
“I was hypnotized,” he said. “I wanted to die with my paintings.
“Everything went up in flames.”
The Fire Department is continuing to investigate the cause of the fire.
On Monday, men hauled away truckloads of debris from the backyard, leaving a burned-out shell as a reminder of what has been lost.
The family plans to demolish what’s left of the buildings and leave the backyard as open space. The patio was once a “favorite yard of everybody,” Unzueta said.
He said he has lived in his mother’s house on East De la Guerra Street since 2010, when he moved in to help her because she has been ill.
“It was the pride of my students and the community to come to my patio and see my art, and listen to music,” he said. “They loved to come into my mother’s house here, where it happened.”
All but one of the family’s pet bunnies and birds in backyard cages all perished in the fire. While fire crews helped clean up the yard, they all noticed a little black cotton thing running around. One of the family’s four dwarf bunnies had survived. The animal has been renamed Miracle.
Unzueta has a leather-bound scrapbook full of clippings that go as far back as his Santa Barbara High School days, when his artwork was featured in The Forge, the school’s student newspaper. The book was in the house, and remains a record of his work as a prolific Mexican-American artist.
He attended high school and college in Santa Barbara, getting his master’s degree in fine arts from UCSB in 1975.
His murals have brightened the whole community since the 1970s, and he has worked on murals decorating the interior of Casa de la Raza, at Bohnett Park, Santa Barbara High’s library, and most recently on an exterior wall of the Eastside Library. He collaborated with local high school students in the Santa Barbara Arts Alliance program to create a mural there, to discourage graffiti.
“I guess everyone wants me not to give up, and keep giving hours,” Unzueta said. “That’s going to be my therapy, working with youth for the city government.”
SBCC President Lori Gaskin emailed the campus Monday to let people know that the fire had destroyed Unzueta’s work. He has served as an adviser for the Extended Opportunities Programs and Services and Chicano Studies faculty member for many years.
“Fortunately, all of Manuel’s family is safe,” Gaskin wrote. “Unfortunately, almost all of Manuel’s life work of murals, paintings, lecture notes, slides and research were lost. This loss represents a good portion of Manuel’s retirement and the higher education of Manuel’s children.”
She wrote that SBCC is looking into ways to help the family with its “sizable” financial recovery.